Nina has the cutest pair of dimples I’ve ever seen on a teenage girl, and she’s got her black hair with red streaks pulled loosely into an adorable ponytail. She gestures toward the seat in front of her desk, pours me a warm cup of oolong tea, and points to the dressing room. Together, we look at the pictures in the catalogue of women getting hot stone massages, aromatherapy treatments, bikini waxes, and skin wraps, and we pick out the featured combination: for NTD$1999 (that’s about $60 U.S. dollars), I’ve decided to get a combination of an hour full-body relaxation massage, a hot vanilla pack pat down, a ten-minute scrub with a bristle brush, and a tea-and-cookie session afterwards. “Take off, please,” she says, and pulls out a pair of transparent plastic panties from a drawer in her desk.
The massage room is fragrant with the scent of roses and jasmine, it is lit with candles, and there are bowls with lily pads floating on them placed strategically in the corners. After I cover myself with a warm towel, Nina pats down my body with aromatherapy oil and digs in, her hands, arms, and elbows tracing my body, kneading, padding, banging, sliding, and pressing, up and down in long, fluid motions. Almost immediately, the transparent panties come off, and she’s swiping a vanilla-scented pack over my lower back and thighs, warming me up and loosening my travel-sore muscles. She leaves the pack placed on my lower back, and I can literally feel my muscles sighing in relief as she works on my shoulders, neck, and arms. Soon enough, I’m flipped over and she’s massaging my chest (yes, all of it—this is not a modest American massage!), and applying pressures to places I didn’t even realize were sore. Then, as soon as it began, she pokes me awake and says, “Ok, lady, no more massage. Xie-xie!” and is out the door.
I dress and come out, my hair a wrinkled, frazzled mess and my mascara leaking down my face from sweating in the head rest. My legs and arms feel like jelly, and I can barely walk, and yet, I feel better at this particular moment than at any other moment on this trip (jet lag be damned!). I am smiling and blinking.
Nina is waiting for me outside with a porcelain tray with two seaweed cookies and a teacup of fresh oolong tea. She motions toward a table and places the tray in front of me.
“You very beautiful,” she says, grinning nervously and giggling like teenage girls in any culture do.
“And you very beautiful,” I say, pointing at her. I also realize, at this moment, that this girl has just seen every single nook and cranny of me. My, this is awkward.
Gaining confidence in her English abilities, she begins to creep over, inching a little bit closer with every step and visibly scanning her mental vocabulary for words she knows. “You….from?” she asks.
“I’m from the U.S.,” I say.
In a panic, her eyes wide, Nina runs to get a napkin and a pen, and pushes both in my direction. I set down my oolong tea and write U.S. in big letters. She scurries over to her friend, another nice girl sitting in her place at the reception desk, and asks her to translate. They giggle together, disappear underneath the desk, and re-emerge with their smartphones, typing furiously and exchanging messages to each other until they’re satisfied with that they’ve typed.
“Here,” Nina says, handing me her phone and smiling playfully. On the screen, it says, bold and in all capital letters beneath a jumble of Chinese characters, “I AM VERY FOND OF FOREIGNERS.”
Nina and I talk for the next twenty minutes, passing the phone back and forth and punching in messages that translate weirdly, awkwardly, and sometimes incomprehensively. But we’re having a conversation—a real-life communicative exchange!–and I’m so relieved. After all, for a girl who loves talking to people, being here hasn’t been the easiest, especially in the making-new-friends department.
“Oolong popular in your country?” she types.
“It’s my first time trying it,” I type back.
“How you like it?” she asks.
“It’s delicious!” I write. “What’s your favorite kind?”
“I don’t know,” she admits, “I like all of them! We like tea very much.”
In our time together, I learned that Nina is going to graduate high school next year, that she hopes to go to university, and that she really wants to visit New York City some day. She’s been doing massage since she was 16 years old. She’s so happy that I enjoyed her work and she wants me to recommend all of my American friends.
This just might be the closest I’m going to get to making a Taiwanese friend here in Taiwan. I type it to her, bow my head, and leave the spa.
A special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Board for sponsoring this trip to Taiwan.